MOVIE REVIEW- Ark of triumph? A uniting <i>Evan</i> has come home!

Evan Almighty is for those who believe in the higher power of comedy (over drama) to put a message across. In this case there are two messages, one spiritual and one political, whose believers may ordinarily be at odds with each other. Without humor, you'd never get them to listen to a story together, let alone like it.

On another level, the movie is for area residents who were somehow involved in the filming last year, whether working on cast or crew or simply inconvenienced by traffic detours. With filming in Charlottesville, Crozet, Staunton, and Waynesboro, as well as Richmond, Washington, and Los Angeles, there's a good chance you'll recognize a tree, a mountain, a cow or even a face in the crowd, perhaps your own.

If you worked as an extra and don't spot yourself in the scene you worked on, don't give up before the credits roll– especially if you did "the dance."

Most of us are decent people. Whatever higher power we believe in– or not– we can get through an average day without breaking more than one or two Commandments or causing major calamities. But when God calls on one of us to do something extraordinary, few are up to the test.

In Bruce Almighty, God (Morgan Freeman) let Bruce (Jim Carrey) run the world... so He could take a vacation. In this sequel, it's Evan Baxter (Steve Carell), who beat Bruce out for the news anchor job at their Buffalo TV station in that movie, who gets the call. The title is deceptive because Evan doesn't get to be almighty, only– like John Denver in Oh, God!– to do a task that's difficult for a human.

The task, as you know unless a $40 million promotional budget has been wasted, is to build an ark. It comes at an inconvenient time– is there ever a convenient time?– when Evan has just been elected to Congress and moved his wife (Lauren Graham) and three sons (Johnny Simmons, Graham Phillips, Jimmy Bennett) in a new gas guzzler to a spacious new Virginia house in the Prestige Crest subdivision.

Evan doesn't like animals, won't even get a dog as much as his Animal Planet-watching kids beg; and he's not an environmentalist, "not sensitive to that Brazilian rainforest stuff." But he's a decent guy underneath. The whole family prays (a little pandering here to the perceived market for "faith-based" films), and Evan prays for God's help in carrying out his campaign promise: to "change the world."

At work, Evan has a chief of staff (John Michael Higgins), an executive assistant (Wanda Sykes, worth her weight in petroleum), and a young aide (Jonah Hill) who worships him. Congressman Long (John Goodman) tries to get the newbie on board to "junior co-sponsor" his bill to sell off national park land to developers.

The number "614" starts popping up all over the place in Evan's life. It's not long before birds and animals are following him, two by two, and God appears to direct him to Genesis 6:14, where God told Noah to build an ark.

Before you can say, "Right. What's a cubit?" Evan has grown long hair and a beard he can't get rid of, and his wardrobe would have earned him a "Queer Eye" makeover 2500 years ago. Ark-building proves to be a good bonding activity for his sons, but as Evan gets Noah-er and Noah-er he's suspended from Congress after announcing the flood will occur September 22 at midday.

Things may not happen exactly as you or Evan expect, but there's a spectacular climax that's not far from a disaster movie in style, as Evan takes a message to Congress about "destroying our national parks for profit," and God repeats His message about changing the world with "one act of random kindness at a time."

The flood may not be Industrial Light & Magic's best work, but it gets the job done, and their seamless integration of animals and birds throughout the film is amazing. It also explains why, at a reported $175 million, Evan Almighty is the most expensive comedy ever made.

It isn't the funniest comedy, not even the funniest of the summer, but it's one of the more amusing Sunday school lessons you'll ever experience. Carell has his moments, and Sykes– well, she could make a eulogy funny. Even mine. You'll enjoy the spitting alpaca, the Sugar Hollow dam, and seeing The 40-Year-Old Virgin Mary on the marquee at Waynesboro's Wayne Theater.

Don't expect edgy. Director and UVA grad Tom Shadyac has taken his "Keep it clean" mandate to heart, but Evan Almighty is a warm, fuzzy movie liberals and conservatives can enjoy together– if not for the same reasons. It's a uniter, not a divider, and we need one of those in Washington.